In the latter part of 2014, my colleague, Errol Rivera, attended a conference in Edinburgh that addressed the subject of university-to-work transitions. In this blog post, Errol raises the question about how ‘employability’ is increasingly being treated as a ‘discipline’ in its own right. He argues for an alternative narrative drawing on Foucault: one of ‘employability as a discourse’.
“In October, fellow educators gathered at a Society for Research into Higher Education event to discuss the state of graduate employability and share success stories of work placement and internships initiatives. In the concluding plenary, an interesting conversation arose. Regarding the subject of employability, its growing importance and the level of understanding it requires, are we looking at the rise of a new discipline?
The employability of HE graduates is an issue which impacts us on a national if not global level. Those within and outwith education institutions have an interest in tracking the current state of employment among graduates, identifying contributing factors, and articulating and projecting the effects of graduate employment statistics onto the social, political, and economic robustness of our society. The search to define, provide, and increase employability for our students has necessitated powerful tools for a deeper, more widely applicable understanding of the matter. But what are we actually trying to do with that understanding? Are we looking for significant relationships between practice and outcome? Do we assume there is a solution – that somewhere between the data and the relevant context we can reverse engineer a single policy or a combination of policies that can be enacted on a university or national level to bring about positive change? Are we chasing a single, all-encompassing answer that doesn’t exist – that shouldn’t exist?
Engaging with the notion of ‘employability as a discourse’ is a direct response to this ongoing conversation. What would we find if we employed the critical lens of Michel Foucault’s “The Order of Discourse” as a sensibility for interrogating publications, employability initiatives and university strategies – everything that articulates our understanding of how we ensure graduates’ futures? Given Foucault’s imperative for specificity and his resistance to the “process of exclusion” that is the notion of ‘Truth’, I’d imagine such an interrogation would lead us to acknowledge the success of work placement schemes, internships, and programmes of study that are contextual, dialogic, programme focussed, and even provisional. In embracing the culture of the respective practice of each profession, these initiatives are eschewing the notion that graduate employability maps onto to a single outcome. There is no single solution, and nor should educators be looking for one.”
Errol Rivera works at Edinburgh Napier University as a creative writer and pedagogical researcher. He also loves dogs and backs my on-going campaign for an office dog. You can follow his adventures @escottrivera.